Nearly half of abortions worldwide are unsafe, study says

Nearly half of the estimated 56 million abortions performed worldwide every year are unsafe and putting women's lives at risk, according to a study released Wednesday.

Highly restrictive laws linked to unsafe abortions, lead author says

Safe abortions are available mostly in developed countries with less restrictive laws and good health health care, the study found. (Mindscape studio/Shutterstock)

Nearly half of the estimated 56 million abortions performed worldwide every year are unsafe and putting women's lives at risk, the authors of a study said on Wednesday, calling for greater access to contraception and safe terminations. 

Worldwide, 25 million unsafe abortions occurred every year between 2010 and 2014, according to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Guttmacher Institute. Some 97 per cent of those are in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Increasing the availability, accessibility and affordability of contraception can reduce the incidence of unintended pregnancies and, therefore, abortions.- Dr. Bela Ganatra, World Health Organization

"Nearly half of abortions in the world are unsafe, and that is surprising because safe abortion is a simple intervention,  scientifically speaking," said Dr. Bela Ganatra of the WHO, and lead author of the study published in the medical journal The Lancet.

"There is an association between highly restrictive laws and unsafe abortion," she told a news briefing.

According to the WHO, around 47,000 women die from botched abortions each year, accounting for almost 13 per cent of maternal deaths worldwide.

All women and girls need access to sex education and effective contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancies and get safe abortion services if desired, Ganatra said. 

Uruguay, Nepal and Ethiopia have made safe abortion accessible in recent years, she said. Ireland plans to hold a referendum next May or June on whether it should loosen some of the world's strictest abortion laws, Prime Minister  Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday.

"Increasing the availability, accessibility and affordability of contraception can reduce the incidence of unintended pregnancies and, therefore, abortions," Ganatra said in a statement about the study. 

"But it is essential to combine this strategy with interventions to ensure access to safe abortions." 

Around 88 per cent of abortions occur in developing countries, where contraception is often lacking, said Dr. Gilda  Sedgh, principal research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute, speaking from New York.

Ganatra said the wealth of a country also influences the safety of abortions, with the highest proportion of safe abortions occurring in wealthier countries with less restrictive laws and well-developed health services.

The study found that nearly nine out of every 10 abortions in developed countries were safe, meaning they were  conducted by a trained provider and using a WHO-recommended method.

In 57 countries where abortion was available on request, nearly 90 per cent of abortions were safe.

  But only about 25 per cent of abortions were safe in 62 countries where terminations are banned or only allowed if a woman's life or health are at risk.

"The highest proportions of safe abortions were seen in countries with less restrictive laws, high economic development and well-developed health infrastructures, suggesting that both the legal framework and overall development of a country plays a role in abortion safety," said Ganatra.